When I hear the word “fornication,” I am immediately reminded of how big an issue premarital sex was during my early Christian years. Back then, nearly every unmarried woman I knew was a devotee of prosperity gospel giant Juanita Bynum. She had skyrocketed to popularity on the African American Christian conference circuit when her book No More Sheets: The Truth About Sex (a follow-up to her viral video sermon of the same name) hit the shelves.
No More Sheets was a call to sexual purity with an interesting theological twist. According to Bynum, each premarital sexual encounter is actually an unwitting consummation of marriage. Because marriage is supposed to be a powerful bond between two people, those who participate in sex outside marriage create an unholy “soul tie”. With every soul tie, according to Bynum, we are bonded to some part of a former partner’s spirit– and are “married” spiritually to them (and all of our other former partners) until we break free through repentance and purity.
Armed with scripture and some very powerful rhetoric, Bynum taught that premarital sex (including masturbation) was a “tool” of Satan. Unwed coitus was Satan’s effort to thwart God’s plan for the single Christian. Those who engaged in sexual sin were being led into darkness.
I remember the overwhelming power her books and sermons had on me. I also remember the pressure within my social circles to maintain a standard of premarital celibacy… of chastity… of limited contact with any man who might tempt me to “fall from grace”.
According to Bynum’s teaching, the stakes were high. Under extreme circumstances, sexual intercourse could irreparably compromise our contact with the Holy Spirit. In that context, sex was a thing to be feared and avoided at all cost. Outside the context of marriage, it was dirty and sinful. It angered God.
I supported this perspective until my church’s young piano player became pregnant outside of wedlock in 2006. Still in her early twenties, she had fallen in love with a young man from another church and was in the throes of her first serious relationship. Several months into their romance, she announced that there was a life growing inside her… a baby… a reason to be truly joyful. The pastor of the church was incensed. He called her into a meeting with the church’s leaders. (I was a “leader” in my church at the time, and was therefore in attendance.)
She was told to “step down” from her role as our pianist until after the baby was born. I stood in her defense and asked the pastor, “If God forgives her sin, why are you punishing her?” The pastor of the church responded: “People who can’t control their lust have no role in leadership.”
Lust? Wow. What a strong word.
I wondered to myself: Why is sex understood as an act of lust when we’re single and elevated to love when we’re married? How can it be solely about dirty, uncontrollable lust on the day before the wedding and about blessed love at the honeymoon? It just didn’t make sense to me.
I retorted, “If this is about sin, then I’m stepping down, too. I sin every day. I ate too much at breakfast this morning. I’m a glutton, so I’m stepping down– and you all should, too. We’re all sinners.” I waited for someone… anyone… to stand with me. Nobody budged.
I stepped down along with the piano player that night and never returned to “leadership” at any church. I still get emotional when I think about it.
In the years that followed, I realized that our issue at the leadership meeting had nothing to do with the piano player’s “sin”. After all, that was the only meeting of its kind that I had ever attended. No person had ever been hauled into a leadership trial for being unkind or for failing to help the poor. No person had ever been asked to step down for eating too much at a church function or for being caught in a lie. It wasn’t about sin (or “missing the mark” as it were)… It was about the timeless feelings of shame that have always surrounded issues of sexuality in Christendom.
DIRTY SEXY THEOLOGY
Most of us have heard the famous “fornication” verses, but don’t know the historical context of the words we quote to condemn one another. For instance, we’ve built an open-and-shut case around the word “fornication“, but are largely unaware that “fornication” is a hybrid of the Greek words fornix (arched building) and pornea (temple prostitution). When sailors arrived at the first-century port of Corinth, there were often pagan prostitutes waiting at the shore to engage them in sexual intercourse. The prostitutes would lure them to their temples which were located inside or underneath arched buildings.
When Paul said “flee fornication,” he wasn’t talking about two committed adults sharing moments of consensual sexual intimacy. He was saying, “Avoid the temple prostitutes who wish to seduce you underneath the arched building. When you have sex with them, you are unwittingly participating in idolatry.” In that context, these verses make a lot more sense:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6:15-20, NRSV)
But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. (Acts 21:25 NRSV)
(Emphasis mine. Read more “fornication” verses here and pay special attention to the frequency of which the words “idol” or “idolatry” also appear.)
It’s clear that quite a bit of context has been lost in translation, but one thing’s for sure: The “fornication” verses were not written to control the sexual habits of loving, committed, unmarried people. The Bible is simply not a book about human sexuality. It’s not a sex manual… It’s a story about how various people in ancient history experienced God. Sex is found in the Bible because it’s a part of the human story– but it shouldn’t be read as a timeless commentary on lovemaking.
Human sexuality is not a black-and-white issue. It cannot be boiled down to a simple moral code. Humans are more complex than that. Sex can’t be legislated by a religion or with a holy text. It’s too uninhibited a practice for that. Love cannot be regulated by one culture’s expectations or by any human being’s standards. It’s too messy and spontaneous for that. And intimacy can’t be restrained by any panel of leaders… Its magnetism is way too powerful for that.
Sex between consenting adults who love one another is not a dirty or shameful thing. It’s a gift and it’s beautiful– and it’s okay to say out loud that it’s a beautiful gift. May you live and love without fear of condemnation.
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